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On the Rez

By Ian Frazier
Farrar Straus Giroux. 311 pp. $25

Reviewed by Ray Suarez, who is the author of "The Old Neighborhood: What We Lost in the Great Suburban Migration" and a senior correspondent for "The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer" on PBS.

Sunday, January 30, 2000

The American Indian predicament is unlike any other in today's America. Their fellow Americans want Indians to be an antique people, otherworldly, noble, environmentally savvy long before the first Earth Day. We have little use for them when their real-life problems try to stake a claim on our attention. Offer a sweat lodge, drumming circles and turquoise jewelry by the side of the road, and suddenly white men from Portland, Maine, to Portland, Ore., rush to embrace an eighth, a sixteenth, or smaller tincture of their own "Indian blood."

When real-life Indians demand compensation for past thefts by the federal government, use existing law to win favorable fishing or hunting rights, or seek federal government recognition as a tribe, suddenly Indians get a full blast of condescension and scorn. By the end of the last century, the Indians were pushed to the figurative, if not literal ends of the earth. They were pushed to the places where white men's desires ran out, or, it was assumed, no economic reason to covet their land would ever emerge.

For readers who are familiar with Ian Frazier's humorous writing, such as Dating Your Mom, or his essays for the New Yorker, On the Rez will come as a welcome new look at a talented writer. He works hard to avoid the cliches that too often mar America's occasional attempts to come to terms with its Indians. He is ready to bust himself and others mercilessly for falling back on well-worn and contradictory formulas to "settle" the Indian problem. He reminds us that cherishing our image of the Indian as a remnant, an artifact of a cruelly destroyed culture, is more comforting, even to the destroyers, than dealing with real-life Indians in our midst.

On the Rez is not a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. It is a work of history, shining a light on the breathtaking dishonesty and cruelty of the federal government in its dealings with the Indians. It is also a diary recounting a personal journey. At the book's heart is an episodic, hit-and-run profile of the relationship between the author and Le War Lance, an Oglala Sioux. Called "Le" by his unlikely friend Ian Frazier, War Lance is the Zelig of Native America. He ranges from one coast to the other, working at a long list of jobs that bring him into contact with nationally known celebrities, day labor bosses and tribal police. He's been everywhere, knows everyone and tells what sound like tall tales that often check out when Frazier decides to follow up.

Frazier is our sympathetic tour guide and our proxy in an ongoing effort to understand the daunting mix of handicaps, dysfunction, sanity and coherence that mark life on the Rez. He does not turn away from the corrosive poverty, alcoholism, violence and early death that in so many cases are common signposts of reservation life. The deaths are unremarkable. The convulsive violence is calmly recounted without preaching and polemics. Frazier knows that telling us what to feel about the relentless disappointment and loss, from Plymouth Rock to today's Pine Ridge Reservation, would rob this tragic litany of its power.

But his reserve does eventually break. His stubborn objectivity amidst his growing intimacy with the people on the Rez fades when it's time to tell the story of SuAnne Big Crow. A hard-working, talented student and masterful athlete, Big Crow carries her Pine Ridge team to victory in the South Dakota state basketball championships. She and her Sioux teammates tour the United States and Europe to play exhibitions. Top college programs around the country scout her. She intends to finish her education and come back with her cousins to work for the betterment of her people and the reservation. Frazier doesn't play games. We know Big Crow isn't going to make it. However, this will not be a made-for-TV tragedy featuring an unjust, unexpected crime.

The life of a young woman carrying her tribe's struggle for respect and fair treatment ends in an almost banal way, with her falling asleep behind the wheel and dying when thrown from her car because she was not wearing a seat belt. During his chronicle of the life and pointless death of this young legend, Frazier tells us straight out that it has moved him. SuAnne Big Crow haunts him and sticks with him: "If SuAnne's death was a terrible sorrow," he writes of the community center named after her, "it also had the effect of holding the good she represented fixed and unchanged. SuAnne Big Crow, though gone forever, is unmistakably still around. The good of her life sustains this place with a power as intangible as gravity, and as real." Frazier manages the difficult task of telling his story without descending into maudlin regret, while never trying to hide his emotional stake. His skill is in his restraint, in his ability to hold his gaze, and sustain the crescendo of his story.

In the economic dead zone of the Rez, Frazier is a man from Mars, a guy with a book contract and a house, a car payment and a paid phone bill. He is a soft touch for Le War Lance, dispensing $10, $20 and $50 loans for his friend. War Lance is as much a puzzle to Frazier as he is to the reader. Is he a fraud? A genial con man? A screw-up? As years go by, is War Lance disappointed by money that is so hard won and too easily lost? Does he ever reflect on his personally fulfilling and economically debilitating ties to Pine Ridge, or is he serene and clear about who and what he is?

At turns frustrated and beguiled, Frazier takes us with him as he and "Le" carom across the high plains. He wants you to know the realities of the Native American experience: that few tribes have reaped millions from casino gambling; that they are plagued by low life expectancy, low incomes and high unemployment rates. The book is a call to action, even though its messenger knows we are still pretty likely to yawn and look for happier news. Frazier has diagnosed the intimate embrace as well as our arm's-length relationship to our aboriginal peoples. His provocative history and moving personal story pays due care to both tasks.

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© 2000 The Washington Post Company

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